It was the sound of her 15-year-old daughter's screaming that jolted Ellen Houska out of sleep Monday night. It took a few seconds for her to register the words, "Mom, the house is on fire!" before she dashed out of her second floor bedroom into a smoke-filled hallway.
All three of her children, Sam, 15; Ben, 11; and Steven, 10, were flying out of the home at 5202 Maple Ave. W. just after 11 p.m., and Ellen had wakened enough to follow them.
"I know somewhere in there I heard the fire alarm, but all I really remember is her voice," Ellen said. "I really think that the reason we're still alive is because of her good judgment and quick thinking."
The family made it out just in time, according to Rick Holter of the Grand Forks Fire Department. Firefighters were at the scene within minutes, Ellen said. "The house was fully involved when they got there," Holter said Tuesday afternoon.
Ellen and Wayne Houska, adopted parents of three, have lived in the home since it was built in 1999. Wayne is a soldier with the North Dakota National Guard, and he's currently in training in Texas before he'll be deployed to Afghanistan.
Ellen had not been able to speak to him by Tuesday afternoon, she said. She was not sure if he knew their home had been destroyed by fire.
She hadn't slept by Tuesday afternoon, and tears brimmed in her eyes as she sat with two of her children. They wore clothing and jackets that neighbors lent to them a heartfelt gesture Ellen greatly appreciated.
"I don't even know our neighbors across the street, and I am wearing their sweatpants," she said. "Everyone has been so kind and so helpful."
She fingered a pair of reading glasses, given to her by Sam's school principal. Her glasses melted in the fire.
"We've been very fortunate," she said. "We're all alive."
The Houskas' home was destroyed in the fire, with about $140,000 in structural damages, and about $75,000 in content damages, Holter said.
The family's 12-year-old cat, Dolly Boy, died in the fire.
Holter said a lamp started the fire.
One of the boys, Steven, had been reading Monday night. He fell asleep with the light on. Holter said the lamp shorted out and caused a comforter to start on fire.
"It's an absolute miracle he's alive," Ellen said. "The mattress springs are the only things left of his bed."
The four are staying with Ellen's stepsister and, soon, Ellen will start sifting through the home to see if anything can be salvaged.
Although she supports her husband and his mission overseas, she really misses him right now.
"He needs to carry on with what he needs to do," she said. "I do hope he can make it back for a few days. I need a big, giant shoulder to lean on."
Clothing, shoes, photos and bedding all were lost in the fire.
The family could use clothes, money and even class photos or team photos the children have been in. Neighbors Dina and Darrin Muggli have agreed to collect items while other arrangements are being made. Contact them at (701) 775-5762.